“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV)
Throughout my years in Bible college, I have heard many students use the above Bible verse to say one can have a prayer meeting, or a church with just two or three disciples. Recently people, either out of fear of a disease that has practically a 100% survival rate or in compliance to the government, use this verse to avoid obedience to the biblical command to regularly meet with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Hebrews 10:25). The argument is that brothers and sisters should not meet in large groups because of the disease, and have church in small numbers because, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV).
This is an absurd argument for two reasons. First, the context of Hebrews 10:25 clearly demonstrates believers are to meet regularly with their brothers and sisters to encourage and strengthen each other. Second, the context of Matthew 18:20 talks about church discipline, not a church service.
Context of Hebrews
The author of Hebrews, while unknown, addressed Jewish believers in Jesus to strengthen them in the faith. The main theme is Jesus is the greatest above all (1: 1 – 4; 2: 8; 3: 3; 4: 14). The main action is faithful obedience to Jesus amidst temptation and persecution (2: 1; 3: 1, 12; 4: 1, 11, 14, 16; 10: 19 – 25).
The surrounding context of our passage gives further light on how to interpret this verse. The complete thought of this verse starts with verse nineteen. However, it is an imperative based upon the theological foundation of Jesus’ complete sacrifice for sin enabling us to have a relationship with God (10: 1 – 18). Jesus’ sacrifice purges the believer of all sin, implants the law of God in their hearts and minds, brings them into a new covenant with God, and completely obliterates the need for further sacrifice for sin (vv. 16 – 18).
In light of this reality, believers are to draw close to God, hold fast to the doctrine of the gospel, and encourage the brothers and sisters to love and good works (vv. 19 – 24). How this is to be done is to regularly meet together, though some people in the faith were not doing this (v. 25a). The reason for this is to encourage one another and be ready for the return of Christ (v. 25b). Those who do not regularly meet together to encourage one another and prepare others for the return of Christ, prove they are not Christians and await the judgement of Christ (vv. 26 – 27). Interestingly, the author of Hebrews mentions the law of condemnation with the evidence of two or three witnesses in the following verse, which ties into the other scripture we are studying.
Old Testament Context of Two or Three Witnesses
The commonality of both Matthew’s audience and Hebrews audience is their intimate knowledge of the Old Testament. They would have understood that in order to convict a murderer they would have had to have two or three eyewitnesses testify against him.
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 10: 6 – 7, ESV).
God did not want His people to falsely accuse others of a crime. This was God’s provision to Israel to hinder them from condemning someone based off of faulty witness. This provision made it difficult to condemn Jesus of blasphemy for calling himself the Christ because none of the false witnesses agreed in their testimony against Him (Mark 14:56).
In light of the above information, this should make someone wonder if their interpretation of Matthew 18: 20 being a church service is correct. Yet, the examination of the context of Matthew 18: 20 will prove it is not a church service.
The surrounding context of Matthew is about a brother sinning against another brother and what to do to resolve this issue (18: 15 – 20). Matthew records Jesus instructing the disciples of the necessity of humility, illustrated by a child, to enter the kingdom of heaven (18: 1 – 4). Jesus condemned sin and illustrated the necessity of repenting of sin, by saying it is better to lose a hand, if it caused one to sin, than enter into hell (vv. 7 – 9). In light of this, Jesus says God is pleased when one repents from sin (vv. 9 – 14).
With this context in mind, Jesus refers to a situation where a brother sins against another believer. If he is confronted privately and does not repent, then he is to be confronted by two or three other brothers (vv. 15 – 16). In the case of repentance, he is to be restored (v. 15). Yet, if he does not listen to the two or three other brothers, he is to be confronted by the entire assembly of brothers, “church” (v. 17a). Yet, if he refuses to repent, he shall be kicked out of the assembly unless he repents. (v. 17b).
The next part shows the church has the ability to judge if someone is a believer or not (vv. 19 – 20). John MacArthur puts it best:
And the verse says that “whatever you bind on earth – ” in other words, when on earth you say to someone, “You are still bound with sin.” When you say that on earth, it’ll already have been bound in heaven. Now on earth when you say to someone, “Your sins are loosed – ” in other words, freed, you’re freed from them, heaven will already have done that, as well. That’s a perfect passive form, which means it’s already been done with continuing results. In other words, when the church finally gets around to saying your sins are bound on you or your sins are loosed from you, the church is then beginning to act in accord with the Father who is in heaven, who’s already said either their loosed or their bound based upon whether the person responded to the conviction of sin or not.
As mentioned above, this makes perfect sense in light of the reference to Moses’ two or three witnesses for convicting a murderer. This is a church discipline situation not a church service.
The above evidence makes the clear case that Matthew 18:20 is not a way to circumvent the clear command to meet together regularly with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It is probably the most misused Bible verse of the COVID era in the western world. Brothers and sisters, we need to repent of twisting Scripture to make us feel better and make us look better to the outside world. We cannot cave to the demands of the world. We need to meet together to encourage each other to love and good works.
If you want to dive deeper in your understanding in biblical interpretation, check out the resources section at strivingforeternity.org/store. There are tons of biblical resources to help you grow in your faith. Lord bless you.
 John MacArthur, “The Discipline of God’s Children Part 3”, (Grace Community Church, February 6, 1983), https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/2332/the-discipline-of-gods-children-part-3, Accessed January 5, 2022.